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A sometimes-irreverent look at Detroit's Boys of Summer, the Tigers, as they try to return to the top of the American League Central.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

TIGERS PREVIEW: A decade since the debacle of 2003 — how times have changed

The movie business is funny: Sometimes Hollywood can play fast and loose with the truth, and still make a completely valid point.

In one scene in the 2011 movie “Moneyball,” Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane talks Detroit Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski into stocking the soda pop machine in the A’s clubhouse as the final piece of a 2002 trade to send Carlos Pena to Detroit.

“I did not pay for the Pepsi. So you can see how much of it is true,” a laughing Dombrowski said to the amusement of the crowd at the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association’s Tiger Day this spring.

“It was not a phone call made out of the blue like that. We’d been talking for a good month or two on the subject. ... It’s interesting because of the way they portrayed that. I tell people the part that’s true is that we acquired Carlos Pena. Everything else is not true. It’s the movie business.”

Based on the 2003 book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis, the movie did take certain liberties with the truth.

In this particular case, the deal in question was actually a three-team trade that also brought Franklyn German and eventually Jeremy Bonderman to the Tigers as a player to be named later, and sent Jeff Weaver to the New York Yankees. Ted Lilly, among others, went from New York to the A’s.

But on its face, the movie was intended to show how Beane — told in the movie, “We’re not New York. We’re not going to compete with a $120 million payroll” — figured out how to think differently, how to win without having to outspend the competition.

In that theme, the movie’s spot-on.

The 2002 A’s won with a payroll of $41 million.

That theme hasn’t changed, either: The 2012 A’s won the American League West with Major League Baseball’s second-lowest payroll ($55 million), and a record number of wins from rookie pitchers.

Had it been a movie and/or book about the Detroit Tigers in the early 2000s, the theme probably would have still stood up.

While the Tigers were gifted with a slightly higher payroll in those years, it was still barely out of the bottom third of MLB.

And the organization had the same problem that plagued Beane: How to compete financially with the big-market teams that could attract all the high-priced free agents?

Just two years earlier, Juan Gonzalez had notoriously spurned a reported eight-year deal worth $140 million to stick around Detroit, choosing instead to sign a one-year deal in Cleveland.

The perception at the time was, unless it was home-grown, talent wasn’t going to come to Detroit voluntarily.

Perception was reality, too.

One year after the season chronicled in Moneyball, the talent-bereft Tigers reached a low point, losing an AL-record 119 games, finishing just one loss ahead of the modern day record set by the ’62 Mets, and 47 games out of first.

A decade later, though, one thing is clear: It is NOT 2003 anymore.

The 2013 Tigers, looking to defend their back-to-back AL Central titles, and make the playoffs three straight years for the first time since 1907-’08-’09, have averaged 87 wins per season since 2006 (with just one losing season), and made two appearances in the World Series.

“Well, we never set a time frame in the beginning, when we first came here. I always think that time frames, you have to be careful in that, because you have to come in, you have to analyze where you are, so you can do the best job that you can, and you want to get there as quickly as possible, but you also need to be realistic,” Dombrowski said.

“But we’re going into our 12th year here, I think, so I had hoped, by the time we got to this point, we’d be in a position where, on a yearly basis, you have a chance to win. And win a championship. That’s what our goal is, at this point.

“If you look back, since 2006, most years, we’ve been in contention, other than one, at some point. We’ve been to the World Series a couple of times, the ALCS three times. Now, what we also hope to do, we also want to win a world championship. That’s what our real goal is at this time.”

Like the A’s, they’ve figured out how to compete with the big boys — but in this case by joining them.

After having to take some risk-laden chances on signings in the early years, to prime the pump, the Tigers have now become a free-agent destination, swinging for the financial fences with the big-market teams, ranking in the top 10 in MLB payrolls every year since 2007, and top five in five of those seasons. The 2013 Opening Day payroll is $132.3 million, fifth in MLB, behind the Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

A far cry from where they had been a decade earlier.

“John Westhoff (the Tigers’ legal counsel) was here in the beginning, he came with me. And we said at the time, when he would make phone calls to agents to try to have players come, they wouldn’t even return his phone call a lot of times. And the reality is, one of our goals — and I said in the very beginning — I said our main goal needs to be to start having players want to come to Detroit, rather than keep telling us all the reasons why they do NOT want to come here,” Dombrowski said.

“And it’s reached the point where a lot of players want to play here. Now, you still have to pay them, you still have to treat them well — but the reality is, a lot of players want to come here and play, because they think we have a chance to win, we have a great fan base, great fan support and great ownership.”

Owner Mike Ilitch has indeed ponied up the money to bring the stars he so covets.

Last offseason, Detroit signed Prince Fielder to the richest contract in franchise history, a nine-year, $214 million pact that beggars what the team had tried to sway Gonzalez with 12 years earlier.

On the eve of this season, the team signed Justin Verlander to a five-year, $140 million contract extension, making him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history.

According to ESPN’s Baseball Tonight 500 rankings, the Tigers have one of the most talent-laden rosters in the entire sport, with Miguel Cabrera and Verlander ranking first and second on the list.

It took a while to assemble that talent, starting with all of Dombrowski’s wheeling and dealing in the early 2000s.

Then it took a while to get it to mesh.

That didn’t truly happen until manager Jim Leyland’s first year in town in 2006.

“If you look back at my first press conference, (I said) I know that they have good players here, but they probably don’t have a very good team. That’s basically what I referred to in my first press conference,” Leyland said. “It was a good talent, it was a not a good team when I got here. Let’s get that straight right now. And I’m not saying I had anything to do with making it a good team, but it was not a very good situation when I got here.

“I’m proud of what we’ve done here, and I hope I’ve been a small piece.”

Most of the big pieces have been in place for some time.

Verlander was drafted in 2004.

Cabrera was acquired by trade in 2007.

Another three-team blockbuster involving the Yankees brought back team stalwarts Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson and Phil Coke in 2009.

The rest of the pot is a mixture of home-grown garnishes supplementing free-agent entrees.

And the result is a concoction so chock full of ingredients that some spill over, stocking the much-maligned minor-league system with MLB-caliber parts.

Just look at how this spring’s key personnel decisions went.

The Tigers’ rotation is good enough that Drew Smyly (4-0, 3.38 ERA this spring) had no place in it. In 2003, Smyly arguably could’ve been the staff ace.

Once Avisail Garcia gets healthy, the outfield at Triple-A Toledo could consist of him in right, Quintin Berry — the 2012 Tigers Rookie of the Year — in center, and Nick Castellanos — the organization’s top prospect — in left field.

All of them had a shot to make the Tigers’ roster, but none of them did, not because they wouldn’t contribute, but because the Tigers had other options. And who would you rather have, those three, or the 2003 starting outfield of Alex Sanchez, Bobby Higginson and Craig Monroe?

Wil Ledezma was nabbed from the Red Sox in the 2002 Rule 5 draft, and appeared in 34 games for the Tigers in 2003. A year later, Chris Shelton was nabbed in the Rule 5 draft, and stuck with the Tigers for three seasons.

Both at least contributed to the 2006 World Series-bound Tigers. Shelton hit nine homers in the first 13 games that season, while Ledezma was the pitcher of record in Game 4 of the ALCS, when Magglio Ordonez hit his historic walk-off home run to beat the A’s.

Neither of this year’s two Rule 5 acquisitions — Jeff Kobernus and Kyle Lobstein, both snagged with trades in the aftermath of the draft — won the uphill battle to make the squad.

In 2003, there probably aren’t even any arguments about whether guys like Garcia or Castellanos make the team. Same with Lobstein and Kobernus.

Ditto guys like Berry or Danny Worth, who were among the last two cuts from the roster before Opening Day.

And there’s no doubt that the closer situation would have played out differently back then, too.

This year, the Tigers sent 23-year-old closer-in-waiting Bruce Rondon to the minors to get a bit more seasoning, rather than rush him to the big leagues, the youngster having only pitched eight innings above Double-A.

In 2003, he’d already be in Detroit, just like Bonderman, who had never pitched above Hi-A ball when he made the ’03 Tigers roster, rushed into duty because the Tigers had basically nothing else.

In 2003, the Tigers’ AL-worst 27 saves were spread out amongst eight different relievers, with German tying for the team lead with five. Fizzled-out former No. 1 draft pick Matt Anderson had three that year, in his final season with Detroit.

Even with the Tigers starting the 2013 season with a closer-by-committee approach, you’ve gotta figure that guys like Coke, Joaquin Benoit, Al Alburquerque and Octavio Dotel will probably each end up with more than that.

You have to think Rondon is likely to accumulate that many saves with the Tigers, too, if and when he gets a shot later in the season to prove he is ready.

If he doesn’t, or if the closer-by-committee approach flops, you can rest assured that the front office will be handed a blank check to fix the problem, either by swapping for an established closer before the trade deadline, or by adding payroll to sign a free agent.

It’s what the Yankees or Red Sox would do.

And, in the decade since the debacle of 2003, that’s what the Tigers have learned to do, too.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.


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